Hitchcock and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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To view The Man Who Knew Too Much click here.

Years ago I read about Cecil B. DeMille’s adventures with The Squaw Man. If you’re unfamiliar with that title, it’s the first movie DeMille ever directed, a silent Western shot in 1914. It was also the 33rd movie he directed, depending on which uncredited assists you count, in 1918. And it was the first sound Western he ever made, in 1931. At a certain point, people close to him must have asked, “Geez, what is it with you and The Squaw Man?!” Surely, if he’d lived into the 1960′s, he would have figured out a way to give it one more go, maybe with Eli Wallach this time. Whether he was trying to perfect it, make lightning strike three times or just loved the story that much, DeMille clearly felt the first time wasn’t as good as it could have been. Not being able to endlessly ruin the original with CGI updates, he simply made it again. Three years after DeMille’s last attempt, Alfred Hitchcock, in 1934, made his first attempt at The Man Who Knew Too Much, with Leslies Banks, Edna Best and Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role. Twenty-one years later, he gave it another go, this time with Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day and Bernard Miles, who was given the impossible task of filling Peter Lorre’s shoes. The differences between the two are minimal but the reputation of the two are quite different.

When the 1956 version was re-released back in the 1980s, I watched Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel review it, and found their critique a bit strange. Stranger still, I began hearing that opinion parroted by other movie fans who were clearly just taking their cue from the two famed critics. They kept saying how The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) was a collection of good scenes but not a good movie. It had great setups but not much of a narrative. The original was much better. Balderdash! I still hear such things, but oddly, only from older fans who would be familiar with Siskel and Ebert’s critique. To paraphrase Paul Simon, still parroting after all these years. The fact is both versions have much to offer but I prefer the second one a little more. So did François Truffaut and he told Hitchcock as much, to which Hitchcock agreed. The second, he felt, was far more professional, more realized. Although that very professionalism, with the high-end production values and a number or two by Doris Day, could be a point in favor of the original. But one could go back and forth like that forever. For instance, on just the opening sequence and then the murder of Louis Bernard (played by Pierre Fresnay in the original and Daniel Gélin in the remake), each movie wins one.

The original opens with a thrilling ski jump that ends in near disaster as a girl chases her dog into the ski-jumper’s path, while the remake opens with a dentist joking with his wife and son about how he paid for their vacation.

The first movie’s setup is far better. We meet the couple’s daughter (not son, as in the remake) when her dog runs onto the track. Then, when the skier crashes into the crowd, we meet Peter Lorre, having a good time (even if he is, as the song goes, contemplating a crime). Then the wife, who is a sharp-shooter in a clay pigeon competition. She loses when Lorre’s watch chimes and throws her off just as she is about to shoot. So everything we will eventually need to know about the characters, especially the sharp-shooting and watch chiming, is setup immediately. The remake takes forever getting us there and it’s a pretty dull ride to the station.

For Louis Bernard’s murder, on the other hand, the remake clearly wins. In the original, he is shot through a window. People react slowly. The assassin is insinuated by jump cut. Louis whispers instructions to Edna Best. Then there’s the remake: Wow! The knife in the back, the stumbling walk, the makeup coming off in Jimmy Stewart’s hands, Stewart’s expression as the victim whispers his dying words… just all it. The winner by a mile.

And so on.

One could endlessly argue the pros and cons of both but the two strongest cards held by both come in the form of an actor. In the original, that’s Peter Lorre. In the remake, it’s Jimmy Stewart. Peter Lorre has a small part in the first film and that is, ultimately, and ironically, a mark against it. Lorre is so charismatic and imposing, the rest of the movie lags when he is not on the screen. Leslie Banks and Edna Best were both fine actors, but Lorre commands the screen.

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In the remake, Jimmy Stewart commands the screen and Bernard Miles in the Peter Lorre role never seems like much of a threat. And since Stewart occupies far more screen time than Lorre did in the original, it makes for a more consistent result.

Both movies are very good, neither is great. The biggest problem? Hitchcock never followed in DeMille’s footsteps and made it a third time. Maybe then he could have combined everything strong from both, casting both Jimmy Stewart and Peter Lorre. Cut Stewart’s scenes by a third, increase Lorre’s scenes by a third, and make the movie a real showdown between the two. And let Doris Day shoot the assassin, like in the original. At least that would make up for having to hear “Que Sera Sera” two excruciating times. Well, maybe.

Greg Ferrara

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19 Responses Hitchcock and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
Posted By Doug : October 8, 2017 12:31 am

I am fine with remakes, especially when someone of Hitchcock’s talent re-interprets his own work.
There’s a line in “In A Lonely Place” where Bogart’s character accuses a film director of being “A popcorn salesman who has made the same film 20 times”.
That type of director may have existed back in the studio era, but these days a director with nothing left to say is done.
Hitchcock always had something to say, and continually pushed to create good solid films. I’ve never been bored by his work.
Tonight I watched a very good film which was full of surprises-”Salt” by Philip Noyce. Solid.

Posted By James Bigwood : October 8, 2017 9:09 am

The only problem with your hypothetical third version (maybe we can call it “The Third ‘Man’”? is that the old and tired Peter Lorre from the sixties, mired in American International horror spoofs, was nothing like the brilliant, vibrant, breath of fresh air he was in the thirties. Stewart might have managed it, but Peter had become a caricature of himself.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 8, 2017 9:18 am

Doug, there are still plenty of directors with nothing to say who get work. Brett Ratner comes to mind. But for big name guys, like Hitchcock, I suppose it’s different. His last 10 years of work does little for me but that’s a minor complaint compared to the previous thirty years of exceptional work.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 8, 2017 9:22 am

James, I can’t argue with you on that and I was mostly engaging in wishful thinking.
In a magical world where we can pair anyone from any time, I would have a version made in 1946 that had both actors.

Posted By James Bigwood : October 8, 2017 9:32 am

Now THAT one I would definitely go and see!

Posted By Arthur : October 8, 2017 11:38 am

The first was made in moody, murky black and white, a few years after sound came on the scene, the second when film reached its wide screen, brilliant color magnificence and when the director had reached his full mature stride as opposed to his earlier relatively adolescent film making.

If Hitch were here to remake it today, would it be washed out colors, stretches of shaky camera footage and an ending that would leave absolutely nothing resolved?

Posted By swac44 : October 8, 2017 1:37 pm

The remake gets points for having creepy character actor Reggie Nalder as the assassin, who I learn from IMDb was named “Rien” (a.k.a. “Nothing” in French). Not sure if that detail is actually revealed in the film or not.

Posted By Emgee : October 8, 2017 4:21 pm

“Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role.”Apparently he had to learn his lines phonetically because he hardly spoke any English. And still he stole the movie.

The last scene in the movie always cracks me up, when the boy starts to whistle Que Sera Sera. Briljant plot device!

Posted By Mitch Farish : October 8, 2017 4:49 pm

There are three strikes against the remake. Strike one – Doris Day is miscast and doesn’t do well in dramatic roles. Strike two – The ridiculous singing resolution. Instead of the syrupy, sentimental resolution where Brenda de Banzie has pity and lets Hank follow his mother’s voice, the original has the satisfying resolution of having the mother who lost the skeet shooting competition to Frank Vosper make her last shot count, killing Vosper and saving her daughter. Which Brings us to Strike three – Nova Pilbeam is a better actor than the stiff they dug up to play Hank. I had absolutely no sympathy for him at all. Leave him with the kidnappers! Better off for the parents and us. And how can you say that not enough Peter Lorre is a bad thing? A little Lorre goes a long way.

Three strikes and the remake is definitely out. Who needs color or widescreen?

Posted By Chuck Berger : October 8, 2017 6:28 pm

Have to agree with the comment about Peter Lorre. A remake in the 60′s with Lorre would not have come off. As mentioned he was a caricature of himself and not the actor of the 30′s and 40′s.
It may be unfair to down play Bernard Miles in the remake in which he played the Lorre part. Miles was a thoroughly professional actor,writer and director in English films. He may have been miscast in the part, or quite possibly the director didn’t help him in the role.
Nevertheless, as mentioned, both movies had their good moments.As
noted by another,the remake didn’t need Doris Day’s vocal chords.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 8, 2017 8:42 pm

If Hitch were here to remake it today, would it be washed out colors, stretches of shaky camera footage and an ending that would leave absolutely nothing resolved?

Don’t know if Hitch would but anyone else making it would. But I think it more likely that the ending would be a huge set piece, chase, explosions, etc. Colossal closing climaxes have become the (boring) norm for Hollywood.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 8, 2017 8:44 pm

Swac, the assassin is the creepiest guy in the remake by far.

Emgee, I read that too and was amazed that Lorre did such a great job with all the inflections, given he was doing much of it phonetically.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 8, 2017 8:47 pm

Mitch, this is awkward because I absolutely agree with every one of your strikes, especially the singing and shooting. I still like the second one slightly more and it may be nothing more than pure nostalgia. Widescreen, technicolor movies like this from the fifties and sixties still stir up childhood for me.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 8, 2017 8:53 pm

Chuck, he was a fine actor indeed and Hitchcock was known for not helping the actors out much on the set which is why when he found actors he felt could take care of the heavy lifting themselves, like Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Jimmy Stewart, he returned to them time and again. Or Leo G. Carroll, who he went to six times.

Posted By robbushblog : October 9, 2017 11:30 am

I much prefer the remake. The only advantage the original has is Lorre. The villains in the remake – save Rien – are boring. I felt the urgency of Hank missing weighing much more on Stewart and Day than I did of the missing girl on the parents in the original. But of course, that’s mainly because it was Jimmy Stewart doing the acting, and I consider him the greatest film actor ever. I will also defend Day. I think she does a fine job in the remake. Advantages go to the remake.

Posted By Emgee : October 9, 2017 3:15 pm

” I felt the urgency of Hank missing weighing much more on Stewart and Day than I did of the missing girl on the parents in the original.”

very much the difference between the English and Americans; stiff upper lip versus heart on your sleeve.

I like the original because it’s concise, the remake is far too long at 120 minutes without adding anything substantial.

Posted By robbushblog : October 9, 2017 4:27 pm

It is concise. It’s short, but like I said, there doesn’t seem to be as much urgency to get the missing child. Stiff upper lip or not, that seems very strange.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 10, 2017 8:10 pm

I didn’t even think about the parents in the original as parents, so I agree with Rob on that one. They seemed like relatives, maybe an aunt or uncle, but not parents. Stewart and Day seemed like parents.

Posted By George : October 10, 2017 9:37 pm

I agree with Hitchcock’s famous comment: the first version was the work of a talented amateur, the second the work of a professional. Both versions have their pros and cons, but I prefer the remake.

I’d say more, but the unfolding Harvey Weinstein drama is more riveting than any movie I can think of right now. Gotta get back to CNN!

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